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       Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant, p.1

           Daniel Tammet
 
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Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant


  Born on a Blue Day

  A Memoir of Asperger’s and an Extraordinary Mind

  Daniel Tammet

  www.hodder.co.uk

  First published in Great Britain in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton

  An Hachette UK Company

  Copyright © 2006 by Daniel Tammet

  The right of Daniel Tammet to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

  A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library

  Epub ISBN: 9781444717310

  Book ISBN: 9780340899755

  Hodder & Stoughton Ltd

  An Hachette UK company

  338 Euston Road

  London NW1 3BH

  www.hodder.co.uk

  Contents

  Title

  Copyright

  Dedication

  Acknowledgements

  Foreword by Dr Darold Treffert

  Foreword by Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

  1: Blue Nines and Red Words

  2: Early Years

  3: Struck by Lightning: Epilepsy

  4: Schooldays

  5: Odd One Out

  6: Adolescence

  7: Ticket to Kaunas

  8: Falling in Love

  9: The Gift of Tongues

  10: A Very Large Slice of Pi

  11: Meeting Kim Peek

  12: Reykjavik, New York, Home

  To my parents,

  for helping me become the person I am today

  and to Neil,

  for always being there for me

  Acknowledgements

  I would like to thank the following people, without whom this book would never have been possible:

  My parents, Jennifer and Kevin, for all their love and patience and for all that they have taught me

  My brothers Lee, Steven and Paul and sisters Claire, Maria, Natasha, Anna-Marie and Shelley, for their love and understanding

  Rehan Qayoom – my best friend from my schooldays

  Elfriede Corkhill – my favourite schoolteacher

  Ian and Elaine Moore, Ian and Ana Williams and Olly and Ash Jeffery – my closest friends

  Birut Ziliene – the person I think of when I remember my time in Lithuania

  Sigridur Kristinsdóttir – my Icelandic tutor

  Suzy Seraphine-Kimel and Julien Chaumon – for all their help with the Optimnem.co.uk website

  Martin, Steve, Toby, Dan and Nicola – the team behind the Brainman documentary

  Andrew Lownie, my literary agent; Rowena Webb, Helen Coyle and Kerry Hood at Hodder for all their help and advice with the book

  Finally my partner Neil, for being himself

  Foreword by Dr Darold Treffert

  This is a concise book about a very expansive mind. But it is a book not just about the mind of Daniel Tammet, but a book about his world as well. And both are worthy of exploration.

  Daniel’s phenomenal ability with numbers is incredible. If you ask him to multiply 37 to the power of 4 he will give you almost instantly the total of 1,874,161. Ask him to divide 13 by 97 and he will give you the answer to over 100 decimal places if you wish. He out-distances the ordinary calculator instantly and without effort. You’ll need a computer to see if he is correct. And of course he is correct. Then there is his ability to learn an entire new language – grammar, inflection and comprehension in only one week. The documentary Brainman, first broadcast in the U.K. in 2005, charts Daniel’s mastery of Icelandic in such a brief time, culminating in a live interview on television using his newly acquired language in a sprightly interaction with his Icelandic TV hosts.

  Of special interest for me, though, is not just what Daniel can so extraordinarily do, but rather his capacity to describe how he does it. Such first-person explanations of savant abilities are extremely rare, in fact nearly non-existent. Most books are written by others about the special abilities some people have, rather than having been written by the person who has those special skills. Daniel, uniquely, provides an exceptionally insightful account of his mental capacities. This description can now be correlated with imaging studies and other neuropsychological tests, some already underway, thereby providing a rare opportunity to explore more fully the elusive, “how do they do it?” question.

  But other things are of interest as well. Daniel’s synaesthesia, which he describes so richly, is unique in that he ‘sees’ individual numbers – each one up to 10,000 – not just as a single colour, but also as a shape, a colour, a texture, a motion and sometimes even an emotional ‘tone’. When he does his massive calculations he literally ‘sees’ the answer in his head, not written out in number form as in a telephone book, but rather as a confluence of these shapes and colours and forms into an ‘answer’ experienced in a newly coalesced shape, form and colour.

  Daniel tells us that his synaesthesia began after a series of childhood epileptic seizures. This, for me, puts him into the “acquired” savant category – people who develop savant-like abilities, sometimes at a prodigious level, following some central nervous system trauma, disease or disorder. The “acquired” savant raises important questions about hidden potential, perhaps, dormant within us all, and about how to tap that potential without traumatic event. By studying Daniel more closely – something he is very willing to participate in – we may come closer to being able to tap the “little Rainman” that exists, perhaps, within us all.

  Daniel has also been given a diagnosis of high functioning autism, or Asperger’s Disorder as well, a condition he writes openly about. In contrast to the more prominent symptoms and behaviours he displayed as a child, though, his present very high level of functioning underscores his observation that he has “outgrown” some of his autism. Such progress does occur, fortunately, in some other people on the autistic spectrum, as they grow older. Daniel’s part progress has created in him a heartfelt life mission – to serve as an inspiration for other people, whether with epilepsy or Asperger’s, demonstrating by his own example that such conditions need not always interfere with overall development and potential. His mission statement is an empathic one – to make the world a “more welcome place” for people with such disabilities.

  I met Daniel for the first time at the Milwaukee Art Museum with its dramatic architecture, rich colours and striking imagery. It was the perfect setting. A towering sculpture with a multitude of glass pieces, of all shapes, sizes and colours, helped me visualise, in a concrete sense, some of the vivid thought imagery that Daniel was describing to me verbally.

  In person Daniel is articulate, soft-spoken, pleasant, polite, gentle and modest. Those traits shine through in his writing as well. His plans for the future include continuing to help charities such as the National Autistic Society and the National Society for Epilepsy. His celebrity-status gives him a good podium worldwide from which to carry out that admirable goal. He also wants to continue to work with scientists to study his special abilities in greater detail. And he wants to promote different ways of learning, particularly visual learning, which is so often so important in better understanding, and then teaching, people with autistic spectrum disorders.
r />   At a very personal level his goals mirror those of most of us – becoming closer in our relationships with partners, family and friends. He also wants to seek, and relish, those too few, but precious moments of peace and contentment that he describes in the closing paragraphs of his book. Those are ‘heavenly’ moments.

  Daniel says that numbers are his friends. Indeed in his early childhood they seemed to be his only friends. But now Daniel is seeking out and making new friends – literally all over the world. Friendship is reciprocal though. And one comes away from his book – or at least I did – with the feeling, through his openness, candor and reaching out, of having made a new friend as well.

  Darold A. Treffert, M.D.

  Scientific adviser on the film Rainman

  Foreword by

  Professor Simon Baron-Cohen

  “How rare is it to have synaesthesia? It occurs in less than 1% of the population. And how rare is it to have an autism spectrum condition? Again, less than 1% of the population has such a condition. In Daniel Tammet, these two states co-occur and if we assume they are independent, the probability of someone having both synaesthesia and autism is vanishingly small – about 1 in 10,000. In this, his first book, Daniel tells ‘with engaging detail’ the story of his life, from his childhood when he always felt he was an outsider, to his adulthood, when among many other extraordinary achievements, he sets a British and European record for reciting the mathematical constant Pi from memory, to 22,514 decimal places. His other gifts include acquiring foreign languages with ease, and even having constructed his own language. Are his talents the result of his two rare syndromes coming together in one person? His synaesthesia gives him a richly textured, multi-sensory form of memory, and his autism gives him the narrow focus on number and syntactic patterns. The resulting book is a story of a life that is both remarkable and inspiring.”

  Simon Baron-Cohen

  Director, Autism Research Centre

  Cambridge University

  1

  Blue Nines and Red Words

  I was born on 31 January 1979 – a Wednesday. I know it was a Wednesday, because the date is blue in my mind and Wednesdays are always blue, like the number nine or the sound of loud voices arguing. I like my birth date, because of the way I’m able to visualise most of the numbers in it as smooth and round shapes, similar to pebbles on a beach. That’s because they are prime numbers: 31, 19, 197, 97, 79 and 1979 are all divisible only by themselves and one. I can recognise every prime up to 9973 by their ‘pebble-like’ quality. It’s just the way my brain works.

  I have a rare condition known as savant syndrome, little known before its portrayal by actor Dustin Hoffman in the Oscar-winning 1988 film Rain Man. Like Hoffman’s character, Raymond Babbitt, I have an almost obsessive need for order and routine, which affects virtually every aspect of my life. For example, I eat exactly 45 grams of porridge for breakfast each morning; I weigh the bowl with an electronic scale to make sure. Then I count the number of items of clothing I’m wearing before I leave my house. I get anxious if I can’t drink my cups of tea at the same time each day. Whenever I become too stressed and I can’t breathe properly, I close my eyes and count. Thinking of numbers helps me to become calm again.

  Numbers are my friends and they are always around me. Each one is unique and has its own personality. Eleven is friendly and five is loud, whereas four is both shy and quiet – it’s my favourite number, perhaps because it reminds me of myself. Some are big – 23, 667, 1179 – while others are small: 6, 13, 581. Some are beautiful, like 333, and some are ugly, like 289. To me, every number is special.

  No matter where I go or what I’m doing, numbers are never far from my thoughts. In an interview with chat show host David Letterman in New York, I told David he looked like the number 117 – tall and lanky. Later outside, in the appropriately numerically named Times Square, I gazed up at the towering skyscrapers and felt surrounded by nines – the number I most associate with feelings of immensity.

  Scientists call my visual, emotional experience of numbers synaesthesia, a rare neurological mixing of the senses, which most commonly results in the ability to see alphabetical letters and/or numbers in colour. Mine is an unusual and complex type, through which I see numbers as shapes, colours, textures and motions. The number one, for example, is a brilliant and bright white, like someone shining a torch beam into my eyes. Five is a clap of thunder or the sound of waves crashing against rocks. Thirty-seven is lumpy like porridge, while eighty-nine reminds me of falling snow.

  Probably the most famous case of synaesthesia was the one written up over a period of thirty years from the 1920s by the Russian psychologist A.R. Luria of a journalist called Shereshevsky who had a prodigious memory. ‘S’, as Luria called him in his notes for the book The Mind of a Mnemonist, had a highly visual memory which allowed him to ‘see’ words and numbers as different shapes and colours. ‘S’ was able to remember a matrix of 50 digits after studying it for three minutes, both immediately afterwards and many years later. Luria credited Shereshevsky’s synaesthetic experiences as the basis for his remarkable short- and long-term memory.

  Using my own synaesthetic experiences since early childhood, I have grown up with the ability to handle and calculate huge numbers in my head without any conscious effort, just like the Raymond Babbitt character. In fact, this is a talent common to several other real-life savants (sometimes referred to as ‘lightning calculators’). Dr Darold Treffert, a Wisconsin physician and the leading researcher in the study of savant syndrome, gives one example, of a blind man with ‘a faculty of calculating to a degree little short of marvellous’ in his book Extraordinary People:

  When he was asked how many grains of corn there would be in any one of 64 boxes, with 1 in the first, 2 in the second, 4 in the third, 8 in the fourth, and so on, he gave answers for the fourteenth (8,192), for the eighteenth (131,072) and the twenty-fourth (8,388,608) instantaneously, and he gave the figures for the forty-eighth box (140,737,488,355,328) in six seconds. He also gave the total in all 64 boxes correctly (18,446,744,073,709,551,616) in forty-five seconds.

  My favourite kind of calculation is power multiplication, which means multiplying a number by itself a specified number of times. Multiplying a number by itself is called squaring; for example, the square of 72 is 72 × 72 = 5,184. Squares are always symmetrical shapes in my mind, which makes them especially beautiful to me. Multiplying the same number three times over is called cubing or ‘raising’ to the third power. The cube or third power of 51 is equivalent to 51 × 51 × 51 = 132,651. I see each result of a power multiplication as a distinctive visual pattern in my head. As the sums and their results grow, so the mental shapes and colours I experience become increasingly more complex. I see thirty-seven’s fifth power – 37 × 37 × 37 × 37 × 37 = 69,343,957 – as a large circle composed of smaller circles running clockwise from the top round.

  When I divide one number by another, in my head I see a spiral rotating downwards in larger and larger loops, which seem to warp and curve. Different divisions produce different sizes of spirals with varying curves. From my mental imagery I’m able to calculate a sum like 13 ÷ 97 (0.1340206 …) to almost a hundred decimal places.

  I never write anything down when I’m calculating, because I’ve always been able to do the sums in my head and it’s much easier for me to visualise the answer using my synaesthetic shapes than to try to follow the ‘carry the one’ techniques taught in the textbooks we are given at school. When multiplying, I see the two numbers as distinct shapes. The image changes and a third shape emerges – the correct answer. The process takes a matter of seconds and happens spontaneously. It’s like doing maths without having to think.

  In the illustration above I’m multiplying 53 by 131. I see both numbers as a unique shape and locate each spatially opposite the other. The space created between the two shapes creates a third, which I perceive as a new number: 6,943, the solution to the sum.

  Different tasks involve diffe
rent shapes and I also have various sensations or emotions for certain numbers. Whenever I multiply with eleven I always experience a feeling of the digits tumbling downwards in my head. I find sixes hardest to remember of all the numbers, because I experience them as tiny black dots, without any distinctive shape or texture. I would describe them as like little gaps or holes. I have visual and sometimes emotional responses to every number up to 10,000, like having my own visual, numerical vocabulary. And just like a poet’s choice of words, I find some combinations of numbers more beautiful than others: ones go well with darker numbers like eights and nines, but not so well with sixes. A telephone number with the sequence 189 is much more beautiful to me than one with a sequence like 116.

  This aesthetic dimension to my synaesthesia is something that has its ups and downs. If I see a number I experience as particularly beautiful on a shop sign or a car number plate, there’s a shiver of excitement and pleasure. On the other hand, if the numbers don’t match my experience of them, if for example a shop sign’s price has ‘99p’ in red or green (instead of blue), then I find that uncomfortable and irritating.

  It is not known how many savants have synaesthetic experiences to help them in the areas they excel in. One reason for this is that, like Raymond Babbitt, many suffer profound mental and/or physical disability, preventing them from explaining to others how they do the things that they do. I am fortunate not to suffer from any of the most severe impairments that often come with abilities such as mine.

  Like most individuals with savant syndrome, I am also on the autistic spectrum. I have Asperger’s syndrome, a relatively mild and high-functioning form of autism that affects around 1 in every 300 people in the UK. According to a 2001 study by the UK’s National Autistic Society, nearly half of all adults with Asperger’s syndrome are not diagnosed until after the age of sixteen. I was finally diagnosed at age twenty-five following tests and an interview at the Autism Research Centre in Cambridge.

 
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